3 Tips on How to Torment Your Characters

Character self-doubt increases story tension.
Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Yesterday I read an older Writer’s Digest piece about creating moral dilemmas for your characters as a way to create fiction that will keep the audience reading. It definitely made me take a hard look at my current WIP. As I considered what I had read, I realized that there are three things you can do to truly torment your characters.

Sometimes we let our characters get off easy. Sometimes it laziness on our part. Sometimes we simply haven’t worked out how to most effectively torment our characters. What will make the situation even worse?

Create Self-Doubt

My POV character is a brainiac. She is the smartest of the smart and she knows it. She looks down on her older brother, the jock. Yet the point will come in the story where he is right. She has to choose between lying about this or admitting that she was wrong. Although she does admit her failure, it leads her to question her abilities later on.

How can you challenge your character’s world view?

Jeopardize What They Value

In another story, I have a character who has rescued a pair of wolves. They are her pack and accept her as no one else does. Later in the story, she has to face that another wolf pack is endangering the sheep on which her people rely. The climax comes when her sister battles one of these wolves. Who will my character save – the wolf or the sister who hates her?

What is it your character values more than anything else? What will she sacrifice when this is at risk?

A Rock and a Hard Place

This is a technique that I don’t think I’ve ever used in a story, but I think of it as the Sophie’s Choice situation. Your character has to choose between two equally horrible options.

You can go the Sophie’s Choice route or you can do what Steven James recommended in the Writer’s Digest article – pick a third path. This has to be an option that you have set up so that it doesn’t come out of nowhere but you have to set it up just so. Make it too obvious and you rob your story of the tension created by a horrible choice.

De-emphasize the various elements and your reader will think – what? How did I miss that? But they will also realize that all the parts are there but in such a way that you didn’t telegraph their importance.

Learn to torment your characters as one way to increase the essential tension in your story.


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